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Stations of the Cross: ‘Ageless old-world’ paintings restored and back on display

Red Wing artist Art Kenyon filled two studios at the Anderson Center with 14 vintage Stations of the Cross paintings as he worked to restore them. Ruth Nerhaugen / Contributor

Art Kenyon will not soon forget his first glimpse of the Stations of the Cross paintings that are only a memory to longtime members of Red Wing's Church of St. Joseph.

"I walked into a storage room and I almost fell over, because there in a corner were these old, decrepit paintings, leaning on walls and on the floor. Their frames were dented and chipped and missing parts," the Red Wing artist recalled.

"These paintings were covered with dust and grime. But as I walked around the room looking at them, I could see — they were pretty doggone good."

The 11th Station of the Cross rests among the paintings being restored at the Anderson Center. Ruth Nerhaugen / Contributor

The artist in him was hooked. Kenyon wanted to know who, what, when, where?

Answers were hard to come by. The 14 large paintings — 25 by 35 inches — are unsigned, and the only documentation suggests that donations enabled the local Catholic Church to purchase them around 1919 for the grand sum of $492.45, plus $285.34 for a set of matching frames.

They apparently were hung in 1923 at the church, which at that time was located at Seventh and North Park streets. When a new church was built in 1965, the paintings went into storage and were virtually forgotten until about 18 months ago.

The artworks Kenyon describes as "ageless old-world paintings" did not look to be in good shape.

"But behind the damaged paintings, their dusty faces peering out, was the beauty of long forgotten artwork crying to be restored to their original glory," he said.

The paintings are done in classic European style probably dating back a century, Kenyon theorized. "Perhaps the most unique feature of these paintings is the fact that they are painted on thin copper plates rather than canvas or board."

His eye was immediately caught by splotches of shiny copper showing through in areas where the paint had chipped.

Nearly all the chipping was in the background areas.

Kenyon explained that the artist — and he is convinced it was one artist, perhaps with apprentices — painted the figures first using oil paint with turpentine as a thinner.

The artist had excellent technical skills, Kenyon believes. "It is easy to see the trained and somewhat courageous brushstrokes used in the faces and body forms of the figures," he explained.

Then the artist filled in the background using a heavier, granulated oil paint. Painters of that era often added materials such as crushed marble to their paint and applied it more heavily to provide texture and dimension.

Despite their condition, "I realized I could bring these figures back to life," said Kenyon, who is a member of the congregation.

Church officials contacted the diocese and worked over the ensuing months to learn more about the style of paintings, the artist, the history and the potential value — including the impact of restoration.

Ultimately, it was decided to move forward and do what needed to be done so the Stations of the Cross could once again hang on the church walls. The Anderson Center at Tower View provided Kenyon with a double-studio space to work.

As a volunteer, Kenyon spent time over 3 ½ months removing the copper plates from the frames, cleaning them, touching up the figures, removing the loose paint chips and stabilizing the background, cleaning and base-coating the copper areas, then laying in a heavy brushstroke to cover the exposed copper and painting to match the original colors and decorative designs.

Kenyon used a deft touch on the figures in the paintings. "Restoration has been kept to a minimum," he said, "saving the aging cracks and most of the small imperfections caused by time and conditions the paintings have endured.

"A delicate cleaning and small painting touch-ups on scrapes, drips and scratches has attempted to restore these paintings as close as possible to their original condition."

The Stations of the Cross have been placed back in their original frames, which also were restored. With the help of Father James Notebaart, a former member of the congregation who is back in Red Wing, the project team located a company to work on the frames.

St. Paul Fabricating "recreated" the frames, Kenyon said, by repairing all the chips and dents, painting them in the original colors, and restoring a thin line and corner blocks that are covered with gold leaf.

The church added special lighting and the Stations of the Cross were hung again in time for the Lenten season that begins today, Ash Wednesday.

Any slight imperfections don't take away from the fact that the paintings today look better than if they were brand new.

"There was no attempt to remove any existing patina or discoloration gained over time," Kenyon explained. "This simply adds to the ageless beauty of this wonderful collection of spectacular paintings."